Reston, Virginia, Exemplifies the Planned Community

Reston, Virginia, an entirely new community, was built to provide the necessities and amenities of life in an environmentally protective setting. It exemplified both the successes and the failures of the planned community model of the 1960’s.

Summary of Event

In 1961, Robert E. Simon, Jr., purchased 6,750 acres of land in rural Fairfax County, Virginia, near Washington, D.C.’s Dulles Airport. A portion of his capital was $800,000 in cash derived from his family’s sale of Carnegie Hall in New York City. He financed the balance of the $12,800,000 purchase price with two mortgages. His goal was to plan and build a new town—from the ground up—that would offer the best of both city and country life. He wanted people to be able to work, shop, and play where they lived, in harmony with their natural environment. Reston, Virginia
Planned communities
Urban planning;United States
[kw]Reston, Virginia, Exemplifies the Planned Community (Summer, 1964)
[kw]Virginia, Exemplifies the Planned Community, Reston, (Summer, 1964)
[kw]Planned Community, Reston, Virginia, Exemplifies the (Summer, 1964)
Reston, Virginia
Planned communities
Urban planning;United States
[g]North America;Summer, 1964: Reston, Virginia, Exemplifies the Planned Community[08080]
[g]United States;Summer, 1964: Reston, Virginia, Exemplifies the Planned Community[08080]
[c]Urban planning;Summer, 1964: Reston, Virginia, Exemplifies the Planned Community[08080]
Simon, Robert E., Jr.
Ryan, Robert H.
Walker, Vernon J.
Rucker, Embry
Rouse, James Wilson

Several factors influenced Simon’s decision to build Reston. As a boy, the future real estate developer had listened to his father discuss Radburn, New Jersey Radburn, New Jersey , in which he had played a minor financial role. This new town, designed and built in the 1920’s and 1930’s, was the pinnacle of city-planning pioneer Clarence S. Stein’s Stein, Clarence S. career. Other pivotal experiences for Simon included living on New York’s 57th Street and on Long Island. In midtown Manhattan, he enjoyed the convenience of walking to many of the city’s amenities. After moving to the suburbs, however, he discovered the benefits of nearby golf courses, tennis clubs, riding stables, and acres of undeveloped land. Unfortunately, he was forced to make a long commute to the city for work and many cultural and social pursuits. Simon became convinced that it must be possible to combine the benefits of both environments in one place—a new community. When both the funds and land became available to him in 1961, he decided to try to fulfill his dream.

Simon hoped to base this new community upon the plans of previous new towns such as Radburn. He wanted to reduce commuting costs and time for workers, provide a wide range of cultural and recreational opportunities, produce socioeconomic integration by offering a variety of housing styles and prices, avoid the chaos of suburban sprawl through careful planning, and conserve the integrity and beauty of the community’s environment. He hired Whittlesey & Conklin Whittlesey & Conklin[Whittlesey and Conklin] , a New York planning and architecture firm, to devise a plan that incorporated these goals. Their final design included seven villages, each with a center commons and each projected to house ten thousand people. The villages would be linked by carefully planned open public spaces, including walkways, bicycle paths, park areas, and undeveloped land.

In order to meet Simon’s requirements, each village would be “mixed-use,” combining commercial and residential zoning. This allowed shopping centers and apartments to share the same building, houses and offices to stand side by side, and light industry to be part of the village center. Buildings could thus be constructed to enhance the natural beauty and contours of the land rather than in zones arbitrarily and unnaturally imposed on the landscape by zoning boards. After considerable negotiation, Fairfax County Fairfax County, Virginia agreed to create a new zoning category, RPC, or residential planned community, for the town of Reston. Among the county’s requirements were that no major commercial or industrial uses be included in the calculation of population density, that ten acres of parks be established for each ten thousand people (twice the national standard), and that the overall density of the community be set at eleven persons per acre. In July, 1962, with the zoning problems resolved, Fairfax County adopted Reston’s innovative master plan.

Assigning nearly 25 percent of the site to recreational activities, the plan included two eighteen-hole and three nine-hole golf courses, two lakes, a horse stable, and numerous swimming pools, tennis courts, playgrounds, and hiking and walking paths. The remainder of the land would be given over to businesses and homes or remain undeveloped. The first of Reston’s villages to be constructed was Lake Anne Village Lake Anne Village , a cluster of shops, businesses, townhouses, apartment buildings, and homes nestled around a thirty-acre lake. Simon insisted that no home be more than a ten-minute walk from the village center, so abundant pedestrian paths wound picturesquely throughout the village. Lake Anne Village officially opened December 4, 1965, to wide acclaim in both the popular and professional press.

The Hickory Cluster, a group of townhouses that are an integral part of Reston, Virginia’s original community-based design.

(Courtesy, The Reston Museum)

Simon demanded high standards of quality from the beginning—a strategy that later proved to be costly. A marketing study of housing in metropolitan Washington, D.C., that Simon commissioned in 1961 suggested that housing prices in Reston should range between $16,000 and $23,000. Because of Simon’s commitment to high quality, however, by the summer of 1964, when the first houses in Reston went on the market, their actual prices ranged from $23,000 to $45,000. These prohibitive prices, coupled with the still-necessary commute to Washington, D.C. (businesses had not yet moved into Reston), caused the new community to attract residents slowly.

Forced to scramble for funds to keep Reston solvent, Simon secured several corporate backers, including Gulf Oil, between 1964 and 1967. By 1967, however, population in the new town was still behind projections. Gulf Oil, by now the major shareholder, brought in Robert H. Ryan, an experienced consultant in housing and urban development, to help direct Reston’s development. By fall of that same year, Gulf decided to take over the operation completely and fired Simon. Reston’s originator was forced to step aside and watch others complete the community.

Under the guidance of Ryan and with the help of a number of Reston’s committed residents, the new town eventually prospered. Embry Rucker, who as Reston’s first Episcopal rector founded the Common Ground Foundation, a volunteer organization that sponsored day-care services, and Vernon J. Walker, Reston’s resident environmentalist, became the driving forces behind the town’s social and environmental programs.

Reston was not the only privately financed new town built in the 1960’s. Other major new communities included Columbia, Maryland, begun in 1963 near Washington, D.C., in rural Howard County by James Wilson Rouse, and Irvine, California, established on eighty-eight thousand acres of former ranchland. Irvine’s plan, drafted by William Periera Periera, William , centered on a campus of the University of California and projected an eventual population of 500,000. Although developed independently, both communities, like Reston, relied on the concept of interconnected villages.


The American new-town movement of the 1960’s was part of an urban-development concept that originated in England with Ebenezer Howard Howard, Ebenezer , a nineteenth century Londoner who disliked living in the city. His book Garden Cities of To-Morrow
Garden Cities of To-Morrow (Howard)[Garden Cities of Tomorrow] (1902) proposed building planned “new-towns” around larger, central cities. British acceptance of the idea was evident in Parliament’s New Towns Act of 1946, which defined new towns and provided legislative and financial support for their development. Such new towns were to be independent and self-contained and were to provide homes and jobs for a variety of socioeconomic groups.

In the United States, the first formalized new-town planning took place after World War I, when Clarence S. Stein, a self-proclaimed disciple of Ebenezer Howard and importer of the British new-town philosophy, began work on Sunnyside Gardens in New York City. His career culminated with the building of Radburn, New Jersey, in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal adopted the idea by developing, under the auspices of the Resettlement Administration, “greenbelt” towns. Three of these Depression-era new towns—Greenbelt, Maryland, Greendale, Wisconsin, and Greenhills, Ohio—were built. None of these towns was particularly successful, however, in part because of bureaucratic negligence and indifference. Shortly after World War II, Congress voted to sell all three communities. Reston, Columbia, Irvine, and their counterparts provided the next important wave of American new-town planning. Financed privately, with no government loans or guarantees, these three towns also struggled financially.

By the mid-1960’s, however, these communities had all, to some degree, become successful and had caught the attention of the Lyndon B. Johnson Johnson, Lyndon B.
[p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;housing and urban development administration. The idea of new towns in which all ethnic, economic, and social groups could live together and which planned from the outset to protect and conserve the environment had a special appeal to an administration that emphasized civil rights, social programs, and urban renewal. Consequently, two laws were passed that focused on new-town development: Title IV of the 1968 Housing and Urban Development Act Housing and Urban Development Act (1968) and Title VII of the 1970 Housing and Urban Development Act Housing and Urban Development Act (1970) . The first authorized the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Department of Housing and Urban Development, U.S. (HUD) to guarantee bonds and notes of up to $50 million per community. The second added a provision for a $500 million ceiling in guarantees for the entire twenty-year development period. Both acts aimed to help limit haphazard urban sprawl, to protect the physical environment, to conserve natural resources, and to promote racially and economically balanced neighborhoods.

By the early 1970’s, thirteen new communities located from New York to Minnesota had secured HUD financing and were at some stage of the development process. Some were truly new, established where no community had been before. Others were “new towns in town,” newly created neighborhoods that revitalized urban areas laid desolate by decay and neglect—an idea applauded by environmentalists and planners alike. Despite this enthusiastic beginning, the program foundered quickly, and by the early 1980’s, HUD had abandoned financial control of nine of the thirteen communities. Only The Woodlands, Woodlands, The near Houston, Texas, was a viable, independent community. Some, such as Soul City, North Carolina, which claimed only two hundred residents by 1983 and was later parceled and sold in sections, failed dismally.

Two problems contributed especially to this failure. First, most of these new towns were built during the 1974-1975 and 1979-1982 housing recessions, an unfortunate coincidence that seriously undercut the project in its early stages. The other contributing factor was the failure of the Richard M. Nixon and Gerald Ford administrations to fund the HUD programs adequately. As a result, by 1978, officials at HUD announced the end of the new-town program. Reston, Virginia
Planned communities
Urban planning;United States

Further Reading

  • Architectural Record 150 (December, 1971). The entire issue of this respected architectural journal is dedicated to the question of new-town development. Includes discussion of both federally and privately financed communities, including Reston.
  • Bailey, James, ed. New Towns in America: The Design and Development Process. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1973. A collection of papers presented at a Conference on New Communities in Washington, D.C., in 1971. The conference, held in response to the passage of Title VII of the 1970 Housing Act, brought together the foremost design experts in the country. Thoroughly covers all aspects of new-town planning.
  • Breckenfield, Gurney. Columbia and the New Cities. New York: Ives Washburn, 1971. This account of the growth of Columbia, Maryland, includes a thorough overview of the history of the new-town movement in the United States and abroad.
  • Clapp, James A. New Towns and Urban Policy: Planning Metropolitan Growth. New York: Dunellan, 1971. One of a number of books published as a result of the new-town boom of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Presents a thorough overview of the theory, history, and process of new-town planning. Extensive bibliographies.
  • Gimlin, Hoyt. “New Towns.” In Editorial Research Reports on the Urban Environment. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1969. This chapter provides a brief discussion of new towns in America and Europe. Useful for its contemporary evaluation of the new-town boom.
  • Grubisich, Tom, and Peter McCandless. Reston: The First Twenty Years. Reston, Va.: Reston, 1985. This in-house account of the Reston experience, liberally sprinkled with photographs, provides a relatively balanced and thorough overview of the building of the town.
  • Howard, Ebenezer. Garden Cities of To-Morrow. London: S. Sonnenschein, 1902. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1963. The groundbreaking work in the area of new-town planning. Essential for the serious student of twentieth century urban planning.
  • Katz, Peter. The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994. Prefaced with explanatory essays by the reigning authorities in the field, this series of case studies of communities in process is wonderfully illustrative of the theories and concepts embodied in the new urbanism movement.
  • Ward, Alan, ed. Reston Town Center: A Downtown for the Twenty-First Century. Washington, D.C.: Academy Press, 2006. History and profile of Reston’s central commericial district and of the successes and failures of the urban planning model. Bibliographic references and index.

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